As a wife, mother, or lover, does Emma ever feel love? She believes that she loves Rodolphe and Leon, but to what degree should readers count that love as genuine? What is the true nature of her relationships? Does true love exist anywhere in the novel? If so, who experiences it? Does Charles's love count if it is not matched by his wife?
Trace the novel's treatment of fantasy versus reality through an analysis of Emma's and Charles's contrasting perspectives.
The novel opens with Charles being ridiculed by his peers, and the theme of public embarrassment continues to dominate the novel. Can someone be ashamed if the truth is not known? For instance, Emma's multiple affairs eventually humiliate her husband, but he is not embarrassed for a long time because he does not know what is going on. But Emma is extremely worried about public embarrassment even before most of the public knows that she should be ashamed. How do the fear of humiliation and the desire for public recognition (such as in the failed operation) affect our choices?
The plot of the novel is somewhat cyclic, in that Emma repeatedly grows frustrated with her life, engages in an affair or some other scheme, and falls ill upon its completion or failure. Is this pattern a simple repetition, or does each episode deepen our understanding of Emma's character or the themes of the novel?
Make clear how Flaubert foreshadows Emma's eventual downfall and death. What are the earliest signs that she will never be satisfied, and how does this message intensify throughout the novel?
Does the novel make a strong statement about the powerlessness of women to define and direct their own lives, or is Emma's experience idiosyncratic? Is Emma's kind of resistance to her life circumstances worthy of emulation?
Flaubert encourages readers not only to sympathize with Emma's plight but also to maintain great contempt for her actions. To what degree is Emma a victim of others, herself, random circumstances, an unquenchable natural urge to be free, or a combination of factors?
How does Emma affect the lives of those around her? Fruitful characters to consider include Charles, Leon, Berthe, and Justin. Does Emma affect the life of Rodolphe at all?
Selfishness is pervasive throughout the novel. Considering the selfish actions and desires of Emma, Rodolphe, Leon, and Charles, what seems to be the source of selfishness? Do men and women express selfish desires differently? How can selflessness be sometimes selfish?
Charles and Rodolphe view Emma in patently opposite ways. As a novelist, how does Flaubert draw this contrast so effectively?